Film Diary: THE TOXIC AVENGER, PART III: THE LAST TEMPTATION OF TOXIE (Michael Herz & Lloyd Kaufman, 1989)

‘All these things I will give thee, if thou will fall down and work for me’.

As a film reputedly made from the ‘fag ends’ of the production of The Toxic Avenger, Part II (Michael Herz & Lloyd Kaufman, 1989), The Last Temptation of Toxie is remarkably coherent. The film’s narrative – in which Toxie ‘breaks bad’ by agreeing to work for Apocalypse, Inc in order to acquire the $357,000 to fund the experimental surgery needed to restore his fiancee Claire’s sight – is essentially a story about ‘selling out’. The ‘local’ (Tromaville’s small town mentality) is pitted against the ‘global’ (the evil corporation Apocalypse, Inc). This is established in the film’s opening sequence, which acts as a metonym for the broader conflicts suggested in the narrative. In this sequence, which arguably sets a bar in terms of onscreen action that the rest of the film struggles to achieve, a group of hoodlums enter Tromaville’s video store, the walls of which are plastered with posters for Troma movies, and tell the patrons that now Tromaville is ‘a company town, you’re all gonna rent company tapes’. Various Hollyweird studios are namechecked (Disney, Warner, Paramount) in a manner with overtly negative connotations. The patrons, including a girl in a bikini who writhes erotically throughout, assert that they like variety. (Hollyweird product, by implication, does not offer this.) Into this strides Toxie, who defends the patrons against the corporate hoodlums in excessively gruesome, wonderfully comic ways, defending the notion of variety and choice in cinema against Hollyweird’s homogenising ways. (Given how the superhero film has evolved since Toxie’s heyday, we could certainly benefit from a Toxic Avenger wandering into current cinematic trends and smashing up the corporate hoodlums.)

The film is as ‘meta’ as, say, RoboCop 2 (Irvin Kershner, 1989) – a sequel which narrativises the process of making a corporate beancounter-pleasing sequel through the building of ‘RoboCop 2’, a robot designed by the evil corporation (OCP) to better the original RoboCop but which ends up being utterly compromised because they (OCP) cannot capture the essential humanity of the original (RoboCop, the cyborg/RoboCop, the movie). The Last Temptation of Toxie‘s opening sequence establishes a contrast between Tromaville (independent cinema) and Apocalypse, Inc (Hollyweird product), establishing a theme which the rest of the film pursues relentlessly (through Toxie’s ‘selling out’ to the corporation).

Along the way, there are some wonderful asides (a member of Apocalypse, Inc who channels Robert De Niro’s performance as Louis Cyphre in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, 1987) and Phoebe Legere’s energetic and unashamed performance as Toxie’s lady love, Claire. It’s a funny picture, barbed in its anti-corporate sentiments; the bad rep it has achieved is arguably undeserved: whilst not on par with the first Toxic Avenger (Herz & Kaufman, 1984) or Citizen Toxie (Kaufman, 2000), it is easily the equal of The Toxic Avenger, Part II.

Viewing Notes. The 88 Films Blu-ray release runs for 101:49 minutes and appears to be a cut prepared for an ‘R’ rating in the US. This edit of the film omits some of the more gruesome violence – notably some of the acts Toxie commits against the hoodlums in the film’s video store-set opening sequence. The presentation is adequate though parts of it are in more rough shape than others, with some noticeable damage here and there (including vertical scratches). It would seem that the source is a positive element – perhaps an interpositive or even a print. Audio is presented via a LPCM 2.0 stereo track, which is functional.


Film Diary: LA LAMA NEL CORPO / THE MURDER CLINIC (Elio Scardamaglia, 1966)

‘It must be very exciting to make love with a murderer’.

Set in the 1870s, Scardamaglia’s La lama nel corpo is a typical mid-1960s Gothic giallo all italiana. The picture features William Berger as Dr Robert Vance, the head of a psychiatric clinic based in a decaying mansion. This Gothic setting forms the locus for a series of murders, of Vance’s patients. Who could the killer be? Fred, a male patient who exhibits violent psychotic breaks with reality? Dr Vance himself, who is claimed to have murdered his wife’s beautiful sister? And what is the source of the strange noises emanating from an upstairs room?

Into this mayhem comes Gisele (Francoise Prevost), who after an incident involving the horse-drawn carriage she is travelling in, is rescued by Vance and taken to the clinic in order to recuperate. Prevost is a wonderful female lead – mature, resourceful and beautiful – and far from the pathetic woman-in-peril of most Gothic fiction of the era (for example, the Roger Corman Edgar Allan Poe adaptations). She enriches the film, the screen lighting up when she appears, and gives the film a touch of class. Berger, sadly, is quite limp and unmemorable in his role.

La lama nel corpo is a film of many red herrings; its plotting suggests the influence of Mario Bava’s Sei donne per l’assassino (Blood and Black Lace, 1964). Some aspects of the story – such as Prevost wandering at night through the huge corridors of the clinic in search of the source of the mysterious sound she has heard from her room – make one wonder whether Dario Argento took some ideas from La lama nel corpo when making Suspiria (1977). Regardless of the fairly non-distinctive narrative, the film’s setting adds much to the picture, the production design creating a strong sense of atmosphere that is amplified by the predominantly low-key photography. Throughout, there is much staging-in-depth using the full horizontal axis of the ‘scope frame, with action taking place in both the foreground and background of the compositions.

Viewing Notes. La lama nel corpo has been difficult to see in a reasonable presentation. The FilmArt Blu-ray released in Germany contains an adequate presentation of the film, in the film’s original ‘scope aspect ratio and seeming to be uncut (running for 86:59 mins), though one that seems to be sourced from a print in rough shape. (The disc includes both a ‘restored’ presentation in which some of the damage of the source has been remedied, and an ‘unrestored’ presentation which exhibits plentiful damage – burn marks, scratches, etc.) The drop into the toe is sharp, with shadow detail often seeming ‘crushed’, and sometimes the rise into the shoulder is equally bold: skintones sometimes bloom.

The disc offers Italian, German and English audio options (all lossless), with optional German subtitles only.


Film Diary: DAWN OF THE DEAD (George A Romero, 1978)

‘You are stronger than us; but soon, I think, they be stronger than you’.

It’s always tough to write about favourite films, and Dawn of the Dead has been one of my favourites since before I reached my teenage years, my first encounter with the picture being through the cut Entertainment in Video VHS release. I vividly remember watching the film for the first time, on a Saturday night with my grandfather, who passed away over a decade ago. I mention this because revisiting the film in my middle age, having experienced numerous bereavements, what strikes me as much as the film’s major theme of consumerism gone made (which is so in one’s face that it’s arguably more text than subtext) is Romero’s more subtle focus on attitudes towards death and how these differ according to cultural and class background. ‘They still believe there’s respect in dying’, Peter tells Roger at one point, when Roger asks why the poverty-stricken inhabitants of the tenement that the SWAT team invade have kept the corpses of their relatives in the basement of the building. Later, Peter tells the survivors of his grandfather, a houngan in Trinidad, who told him that ‘When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth’.

Viewing Notes. This time, I watched Dawn of the Dead via the restoration of the European cut of the film, running 119:43 mins, from the Italian Midnight Factory Blu-ray set.

Romero’s 126-min theatrical cut has always been my favourite edit of the film and therefore my ‘go to’ version of Dawn of the Dead. However, in the mid-1990s I acquired the longer 138-min ‘Cannes cut’ and the 119-min ‘Argento cut’ on VHS tapes dubbed from the Japanese LaserDisc release. These offer a case study in how an edit can change the overall tone of the film. The 119-min cut prepared by producer Dario Argento for release in several European countries removes much of the film’s humour, adds in some gore, restructures some scenes slightly (notably the scene in which Peter and Roger use the trucks to block the entrances of the mall) and replaces Romero’s mix of Goblin tracks and library music with wall-to-wall Goblin tracks. The result is a cut of the film that has much less dry humour which, combined with the added gore footage, feels much more oppressive because of it, the rockin’ Goblin score making the film seem more action-oriented. The European cut feels much more like an assault on the senses than the other edits of the film. Where much of the film, in the Euro cut, features more music, Argento also removes some music cues – where Romero underscores the death and resurrection of Roger using library music, in the Euro cut this scene plays out without musical accompaniment, with the result that it’s more haunting.

To be fair, though I’ve watched Dawn of the Dead dozens of times, I’ve only watched the European cut of the film perhaps four or five times in the past 25 years – always when acquiring a new home video version containing it. The first time was via the aforementioned VHS dubs of the Japanese LaserDisc; the second was when Anchor Bay released their DVD boxed set in the mid-2000s; the third was when Arrow Video released their Blu–ray set in the UK; the fourth was via the Opening Films Blu-ray release from France. Based on a restoration of the European cut that was taken from a 4k scan of an interpositive, Midnight Factory’s Blu-ray presentation of this cut of the film is, while not without its flaws, pretty darned impressive. (Early pressings of the disc had an encoding issue that was remedied by a disc replacement programme, which Midnight Factory kindly also honoured for international customers like myself.) The colour palette is noticeably improved, with a sense of consistency and depth to the colours that was absent in previous home video presentations of this cut of the film.

Given that the Euro cut makes standout use of the Goblin music, I sucked in my pride and chose to watch the film with the lossless 5.1 track included on the disc (a lossless 2.0 track is also on offer; the purist in me would usually go for that option). This is rich and has some excellent range and effective separation; gunshots sound impressive, in particular, and the Goblin score sounds superb. However, this 5.1 track contains an incessant reverb/echo effect which can be quite distracting at times.


Film Diary: A DAY WITHOUT POLICEMAN (Johnny Lee, 1993)

Featuring a set-up familiar from numerous 1950s Westerns and the premise of many more modern action pictures such as James Mangold’s Cop Land (1997), Johnny Lee’s notorious Cat III picture A Day Without Policeman focuses an a representative of the law (played by Simon Yam) whose professional function is crippled by both a previous experience and his personal circumstances. Here, specifically, the once up-and-coming Yam saw his colleagues massacred during a bust by a gang wielding AK-47s, resulting in Yam losing his nerve, becoming impotent(!) and also losing his lover, and being relocated to an island.

Like his cinematic brethren, Yam is faced with a situation that tests his mettle and brings him back to functionality as a lawman: a gang of mainlanders invade the island, beginning a wave of outrageous violence against which Yam becomes the last line of defence and must make a stand.

There’s more than a little of David Sumner, the mousy mathematician that Dustin Hoffman played in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1972), about the character essayed by Simon Yam – in his trajectory from non-violent underdog into a man who is capable of using exceptional levels of violence in order to ‘protect’ the island community. Yam’s sexual impotence becomes a metaphor for his lack of efficacy as a policeman. Like Peckinpah’s picture, A Day Without Policeman draws a connection between violence, masculinity and sexual prowess: Yam’s lack of functionality as a police officer is connected to his very specific fear of AK-47 assault rifles and also his sexual impotence. The AK-47 too obviously functions as a phallic symbol here but this specific choice of weapon, the Russian-made gun most usually associated with Communist military units and guerilla fighters (for example, in its use by the NVA during the Vietnam war), perhaps also speaks of a fear of Communism and mainland China’s then-impending ideological ‘invasion’ of Hong Kong.

The violence in the film is often deeply protracted, with an emphasis on suffering and the callousness of the perpetrators. Amidst some outrageous bloodshed (including some strong sexual violence which casual viewers should be warned about) there are some strangely poetic scenes such as a brief visual reference to Bunuel’s Los Olvidados (1950), perhaps through Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), in which a victim of a vigilante mob’s hand is seen clawing its way out of a shallow grave. Like Ringo Lam’s School on Fire (1988), for example, A Day Without Policeman was reputedly cut quite heavily before its release, some of the violence being reduced in its intensity. Rumours abound of versions with slightly different content being released on different home video formats, and certain scenes seem certainly to be abbreviated, but both versions of the picture I’ve seen (the Universe VCD release and the Tai Seng DVD) appear to be identical.

Viewing Notes. This viewing was via the Tai Seng DVD, which runs for 98:57 mins. The 1.85:1 photography is presented anamorphically, with burnt-in Chinese and English subtitles that are sometimes hard to read (white text on a light background). It’s a sorry presentation of the film that cries out for an upgrade.

All releases are hampered (or perhaps assisted, depending on your point of view) by some of the most ludicrous English subtitles seen in a Hong Kong film this side of Tiger on Beat 2 (Chia-Liang Liu, 1990). These include lines such as [all sic]:

‘Stay away of women’.

‘Know your bitch cannot wail! Don’t forget to use condom! Move safe’.

‘Don’t satisfy women, they need to beat till they’re 70’.

‘Think it carefully, woman is just Sunday car. Drive once every week’.

‘Without gangsters, but you are making trouble here. I know you are the sone of the Master of the village’.

‘Smelly men! Stay away my lover! Don’t touch!’

‘You chinese gay stolen’.

‘Telling true, Ah Chai, you are very nutrient’.

‘Look at the size not like’.

‘Don’t move, see my underwear’.

‘If you don’t back, I change the lock’.

‘Go! Have discount you!’

‘Look and make my eyes pain’.

‘We throw the gun to smash them’.

‘While phir expose out! Still need to look!’

‘Gay! Play us!’

‘Dress the bra and walk street’.

‘We have AK47. You will lost’.

‘It’s you, you set out all the things’.

‘Please don’t gun me on the nose’.

‘Hong Kong people always lies! You will lost on hat! Damn you baster!’

‘I will not come back, Hong Kong is animal place’.

‘To tell you the truth, I’m sexual deformation’.

‘You have no hiding trees here!’

‘I go to hinge them! You find a chance to shoot!’

Interview: Fine Art Photographer Shannon Taggart – Spirit Photography

The following is the full text of an interview I conducted via email with the superb fine art/documentary photographer and photojournalist Shannon Taggart, whose inspirational work focuses on spiritualism and the ethereal, back in 2016. The interview was conducted as part of my preparation for an article and conference paper focusing on spirit photography and the lasting impact of its visual paradigms on depictions of the supernatural and the liminal in both still and moving image photography. Shannon’s Instagram page is a fascinating repository for Shannon’s own photographic work and archival imagery on the subject.

A promo video for Shannon’s book Seance (2019) can be found at this link. Seance, available from the 26th of November, can be purchased from Amazon and other retailers.

I am as always very grateful to Shannon for taking time to answer my questions so thoughtfully.

QUESTION: How cognisant of the work of the pioneering spirit photographers of the 19th and early 20th Centuries (such as William Mumler and William Hope) are you when producing your own work? Do you allow the paradigms associated with their photography to shape your own work consciously and directly? How would you describe the relationship between their work and your own?

SHANNON: Spirit photography was not acknowledged in any of the official photography text books I studied from. When I began my project on Spiritualism in 2001, I had never even heard of spirit photography. Unexpectedly, the Spiritualists I met introduced me to it. I soon became enthralled with this secret history. I was shocked by spirit photographs. I was dumbstruck by their absurdity, their outrageousness, and their odd humanity. And their tenderness. And how the images spoke so eloquently about grief, about love and loss. This hidden photographic history then became a resource and an inspiration for my own photographic theory and practice.

QUESTION: Your work differs from that of the spirit photographers of the 19th/early 20th Centuries by, obviously, featuring a mixture of both colour and monochrome photography. You suggest in the statement on your website that in Spiritualism, technology is used to ‘extend the senses and assist an engagement with the spirit world’. Do you feel that the camera has a similar function? What determines your choice of medium/photographic equipment? What equipment do you use? Do you find that the choice of medium (for example, the film/digital distinction) is important? How does it impact on your work?

SHANNON: Yes, photography is one of the many technologies that Spiritualists use to extend the senses and invoke the unseen. I have been inspired by some of these approaches, which are part of the current “instrumental-transcommunication” movement within Spiritualism. In my opinion, the specific camera, film, or digital chip used makes little difference. I have shot with a variety of gear, and I have tried numerous types of film and digital backs.

I began to play with the glitches inherent within the photographic process after accidentally creating synchronistic photographs. One example happened during a séance, when people claimed to see a woman’s doppelgänger floating peacefully next to her. I did not see this. I attempted to make a straight document of the event, but her doubled face appeared on my film. I found this surprise thrilling—my camera shutter rendered a perfect metaphor for the invisible experience.

I became interested in exploring this photographic synchronicity. I tried conventions that are considered wrong, messy or “tricky”, breaking the rules of what is considered technically correct or professional. I saw how photography’s accidents and errors seemed to offer a visual language for the immaterial. I began to think about the magic of using light, time and automation as raw materials. I began to consider the conjuring power of photography itself.

My work blurs the distinctions between ethnographic study, photojournalism, and art. My goal is to produce a project that informs, but one that also blurs boundaries and creates questions. I do this by including images that use photography’s own mechanisms to question these spiritual realities–photographs that contain both mechanical and spiritual explanations, requiring interpretation.

QUESTION: As you suggest in the statement on your website, ‘The answer came when I pushed my camera to the edge of its functionality and crossed the boundary of what is considered bad, wrong or unprofessional. Chance elements and the inherent imperfections of the photographic process (blur, abstraction, motion, flare) offer an agent for the immaterial’. Are these ‘chance elements’ the same in today’s world of digital photography as they were in, say, Mumler’s use of photographic plates; or do you feel there is a qualitative difference between the ‘chance elements’ of digital photography and those of the photography of the 19th/early 20th Centuries?

SHANNON: The difference between then and now is that we understand photography’s subjective abilities better. We understand trick photography, accidents, and double exposure. Despite this knowledge, the photographic process still retains a level of mystery that is astounding. Photography remains magical, whatever the technical process. It freezes time, it automates, it transforms. Even the most pragmatic practitioners speak of its mystery.

QUESTION: In your statement, you highlight the distinction between the ‘veiled presence’ and the ‘visible body’. Spirit photography has traditionally seen a tension between depicting the ghostly/ethereal (for example, the ‘intangible presences’ within the photography of William Mumler and William Hope) and the physical/corporeal (for example, the vogue in the 1920s for parapsychologists/photographers like Albert von Schrenck-Notzing and T G Hamilton to photograph ectoplasmic emissions). In the work of the spirit photographers of the 19th/early 20th Centuries, these two approaches very rarely crossed over – if at all. Do you think these two approaches may be reconciled? Do these two approaches communicate the sense of liminality in the same way as one another, or do they possess different connotations?

SHANNON: This tension between the intangible and the physical is still present in Spiritualism today, so it’s something I’ve struggled with while trying to create photographs of mediums. I have been unable to reconcile these approaches. The mediums who produce objective physical effects beg to be straightly documented. Their ritual acts leave no room for play–they’ve already rendered a mystery. The mediums whose workings remain invisible seem to offer a richer atmosphere for photographic interpretation and experimentation.

QUESTION: In what ways do you think our relationship with these images is similar to, or different from, how the work of photographers like William Hope or Albert von Schrenck-Notzing was received during the 19th/early 20th Centuries? Do you think the 19th Century emphasis that was placed on photography as ‘evidence’, which formed a large part of the context of the work of photographers like Mumler and Hope – with photography used as ‘proof’ by both Spiritualists and skeptics – is still with us today?

SHANNON: Albert von Schrenck-Notzing came to conclude that “a photograph reproduces only an instant, abstracted from the flow of the living event as it occurred during seances. For this reason, the effect it produced could only be crude and deceptive.” He abandoned the photographic process for its inability to render what he saw as objective fact. He recognized that photographs complicated truth. I see myself as embracing the process for the exact reasons that Schrenck-Notzing abandoned it. I’m trying to take photography’s innate subjectivity as far as it will go, to see what will happen. That said, I do find that many viewers don’t take into account the complexity of a photographic truth. This is a theme I try to address every time I lecture. Photography is a trickster medium. Photographs continually offer a variety of interpretations. And this invitation to assign meaning is a major part of photography’s power.

QUESTION: Do you think the visual paradigms/iconography of spirit photography of the 19th/early 20th Centuries have played a significant role in how the theme of liminality has been explored in other areas of visual culture of the 20th/21st Centuries (for example, in films about ghosts, etc)? If so, in what ways?

SHANNON: In contemporary culture, there is an awareness of Spiritualist photographic iconography that is disconnected from its history. Ectoplasm, Spiritualism’s most iconic symbol, is part of a shared visual vocabulary, demonstrated from jokes on the cartoon South Park to imagery used by fine artists like Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler. Most famously, ectoplasm appears in the 1984 movie Ghostbusters, co-written by Dan Ackroyd, and soon to be in theaters as a sequel film. Dan Ackroyd is a fourth generation Spiritualist, and he is drawing the term directly from Spiritualist practice. These examples attest to the power of this imagery, and also to its marginalization.

QUESTION: What do you feel is the reason for the enduring fascination with this theme of liminality within visual culture? Why is it so prevalent? Are the reasons for its appeal today the same as for its appeal during the early years of spirit photography?

The liminal realm is where all myth and mystery reside. This visualized liminality, with its blurring of the true and the false, flickers so intensely that it’s difficult to take your eyes off of it. The appeal of liminality within visual culture remains because it offers a way to contemplate the ineffable within our ordered, rationalized, and largely disenchanted world.

(The images used to illustrate this interview are by William Mumler and Albert von Schrenck-Notzing, respectively.)

FILM DIARY: The Last Blood (Jing Wong, 1991)

Sold in many countries as a sequel to John Woo’s HARD BOILED (in the UK, as HARD BOILED 2; and in Germany, where Woo’s earlier JUST HEROES was released as HARD BOILED 2, as HARD BOILED 3), Jing Wong’s THE LAST BLOOD was actually made a year before HARD BOILED. Whilst not on a par with the Woo picture, THE LAST BLOOD has some incredibly-staged action sequences that are punctuated by some outrageous humour – mostly involving Eric Tsang’s character Fatty.

Set against a backdrop of the Gulf War, footage of which is seen playing on television screens throughout the film, THE LAST BLOOD’s focus is on terrorism, the Japanese Red Army attempting to assassinate the visiting Daka Lama. The terrorists are depicted in sleeper cells: in an early scene, the lover of one of these terrorists, unaware that he is part of a terrorist cell, returns home to find her home occupied by his compatriots. In response, her lover turns on her and cruelly and dispassionately murders her.

The sharply-filmed action is offset by some wacky humour, including a slack handful of in-jokes that poke fun at the screen personae of Andy Lau – who here plays triad Brother Bee – and Alan Tam – playing Interpol agent Lui Tai. That said, despite much of the film’s levity and the panto villain shtick of the film’s antagonist, Kama Kura (Chin Ho) – the leader of the Japanese Red Army cell who sports a RED HEAT-era Arnold Schwarzenegger-esque flat top haircut – THE LAST BLOOD also skirts with the taboo. In one notable scene, the terrorists up the ante by shooting a wheelchair-bound father and his young son.

Viewing Notes. Watched via the German HDMV DVD release, which contains an anamorphic presentation (1.85:1) that, unlike the Mega Star DVD, is progressive rather than interlaced. The HDMV also contains the original Cantonese mono mix. (The audio on the Mega Star DVD release is a new 5.1 sound mix which contains rerecorded foley effects.)

FILM DIARY: The Untold Story 2 (Andy Ng, 1998)

A sequel in name only to Herman Yau’s memorable 1993 Cat III picture THE UNTOLD STORY, which features a powerhouse performance from Anthony Wong, THE UNTOLD STORY 2 has virtually no relationship with Yau’s film – other than the presence of Anthony Wong in the cast. Though the film’s promotional artwork, and certainly the DVD cover, might suggest Wong is playing a cannibalistic cook similar to the ‘Bunman’ of the first picture, the reality is far different. In THE UNTOLD STORY 2, Wong plays a minor character, an indolent police officer named Lazyboots. It’s a walk-on, walk-off role, certainly overshadowed by the major player in this film, Paulyn ‘Alien’ Sun.

Sun plays Fung, the mainland cousin-in-law of Cheung (Emotion Cheung) who arrives in Hong Kong to work at the family-owned restaurant. The clientele of Cheung’s restaurant are equal parts police and triads. Anthony Wong’s character, Lazyboots, offers some comic relief; like many HK films of this era, THE UNTOLD STORY 2 depicts the police as clueless and utterly impotent.

From their first meeting, it is clear that Fung is besotted with Cheung. Fung is charming and loyal – everything Cheung’s unfaithful, unpleasant wife, Fung’s cousin, is not. However, Fung is also a raving maniac, something which is revealed gradually to the audience and then to Cheung: we realise the depths of Fung’s depravity when, in retaliation for anti-mainlander abuse thrown at her by a customer in a shop, Fung follows the woman into a public lavatory, douses her in paint and sets her alight. Outwardly polite and deferential, Fung is also secretly murderous.

Played wonderfully by the beautiful Alien Sun, in a performance that oscillates between absolute naivete and savagery, Fung is a deceptively complex character. Certainly, her dedication to the put-upon Cheung makes her somewhat sympathetic, though as the narrative progresses her violence escalates, and as the film heads towards its climax Fung descends into full-on ‘bunny boiler’ mode – with the final sequences of the film paying homage to the likes of Adrian Lyne’s FATAL ATTRACTION (1987) and Curtis Hanson’s THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE (1992). However, arguably the film is largely sympathetic to Fung: we see the prejudice that, as a mainlander, she faces from the Hong Kongers, who subject her to namecalling and ridicule her. On the other hand, Fung’s deadly behaviour in some ways seems to legitimate the Hong Kongers’ fear and distrust of mainlanders: the film seems to suggest that these two factors become self-validating, leading to a spiral of antagonism between the two cultures.

‘I am the last woman in your life’, Fung tells Cheung as the film nears its climax. But when the deadly Fung is played by the incredible Alien Sun, who can make the most murderous character utterly beguiling, if you were in Cheung’s place would you mind?

Viewing Notes. Watched via the Chinese Universe DVD release, which contains a non-anamorphic presentation (1.85:1) and runs for 90:35 mins.

FILM DIARY: A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon (Tsui Hark, 1989)

Its narrative taking place at the fag-end of US involvement in Vietnam, Tsui Hark’s prequel to John Woo’s iconic A BETTER TOMORROW (1986) sees the ultra-cool Mark (Chow Yun-Fat) finding his Ken Takakura-esque shades, his distinctive Alain Delon-esque raincoat and his mojo through a relationship with action woman Kit (the incredible Anita Mui, who died tragically young in 2003).

As fans of HK cinema know, Woo planned a prequel to A BETTER TOMORROW that was set during the war in Vietnam but fell out with his producer Tsui Hark, and Hark went on to direct this picture whilst Woo made the somewhat similar BULLET IN THE HEAD (1990), also set during the Vietnam War.

Travelling to a Vietnam that is faced by a power vacuum – the Americans are on the verge of pulling out of Saigon, whilst the South Vietnamese forces have an iron grip on the city – Mark and his cousin Mun (Tony Leung) discover themselves enmeshed in an environment mired in corruption and bribery. ‘When they see cash, their eyes light up like headlights’, Mark observes in relation to the officials. At first, this works to their advantage – Mark bribing officials to release Mun from prison – but as the story progresses, these protagonists, joined by Kit, discover the human cost of this corruption.

It’s a corrupt, oppressive system that is represented through Bong (Nam Yim), a morally bankrupt commander in the South Vietnamese army who becomes the film’s chief antagonist. As the story develops, the characters repeatedly refer to gambling as a metaphor for life and a fatalistic worldview: ‘Our gambling chips are being played by others. We have no choice whether we win or lose. The only choice is whether or not to play’, Mark tells Kit.

Hark emulates Woo’s use of slow-motion and cross-cutting in A BETTER TOMORROW and A BETTER TOMORROW II, though in this picture the rhythms are all wrong and some scenes play out almost entirely with an undercranked camera, meaning that the slo-mo often feels more like simple padding than an attempt to capture the subjective experiences of the characters during moments of violence.

Early in the film, Mark and Mun witness a peaceful anti-war/anti-American demonstration by students, which is put down with force by the South Vietnamese forces before a couple of young women on a moped throw a bomb into the midst of the soldiers. A clear attempt to draw parallels between the immediate context of the story and the events of Tiananmen Square, this sequence offers a three-dimensional view of violence in a society dominated by corrupt authorities and guerilla warfare, the characters expressing in the dialogue concerns that such authoritarian violence might reach the shores of Hong Kong. For some time after the handover of Hong Kong took place, critics were suggesting that such anxieties in HK cinema were largely unfounded, but revisiting the film in September of 2019, with the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement protests still ongoing in Hong Kong – and provoking heavy-handed tactics from the Chinese authorities – some aspects of A BETTER TOMORROW III seem frighteningly prescient.

FILM DIARY: Red to Kill (Billy Tang, 1994)

One of the definitive Cat III pictures to come out of Hong Kong in the early 1990s, RED TO KILL differs from some of its contemporaries (Danny Lee and Billy Tang’s DR LAMB and Herman Yau’s UNTOLD STORY) by not having a ‘ripped from the headlines’ plot: unlike those films, which were based very loosely on true stories, RED TO KILL’s plot is entirely fictional.

An unashamedly combative film, RED TO KILL is anchored by Ben Ng’s incredible performance as Chan, the man who altruistically runs a home for mentally challenged adults but who by night turns into a brutal, absolutely feral rapist/murderer whose assaults are triggered by the colour red. Chan is by turns utterly calm and controlled, suited and booted by day; but by night, he is all jittery tics, rippling muscles and jock straps as he searches for his victims. It’s not a stretch to assert that the transformation from day-Chan to night-Chan is like the transformation of Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde, with the colour red as the alchemical ingredient that acts as a catalyst for the metamorphosis of the former into the latter.

The film builds some sympathy for Chan by depicting, through a vivid flashback, the incident in his childhood that led to his present-day triggering by the colour red: Chan’s father caught his mother with her lover, and the very young Chan was forced to watch as his mother and her lover butchered both Chan’s father and Chan’s young brother, the blood spattering across Chan’s face. Watching RED TO KILL, one might be reminded of Will Graham’s assertion in Michael Mann’s 1986 movie MANHUNTER: ‘My heart bleeds for him, as a child. Someone took a kid and manufactured a monster. At the same time, as an adult, he’s irredeemable. He butchers whole families to pursue trivial fantasies. As an adult, someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks’.

The story builds towards a ferocious climax in which Chan, wielding a sledgehammer and wearing a wrestler’s cossie, hunts down the social worker (Money Lo) of one of his victims, the mentally handicapped Ming Ming (Lily Chung), with whom Chan has developed an obsessive fascination. Tang’s protacted handling of this climax and the manner in which he amps up the hysteria and violence has some equivalence in Tobe Hooper’s handling of the climax of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974).

As challenging as the narrative might be, RED TO KILL is incredibly photographed. For the most part, the night-time sequences are shot with blue gels, resulting in an almost monochromatic palette – shades of blue and black. This is disrupted, however, when the colour red appears on the screen – such as a potential victim in a red dress or wearing red shoes. This aesthetic is incredibly effective in placing the viewer within Chan’s mindset, and, as unlikely as it may seem, one might wonder whether cinematographer Tony Mau was influenced by Powell and Pressburger’s THE RED SHOES…

FILM DIARY: The Bridge (aka Most) (Hajrudin Krvavac, 1969)

THE BRIDGE is a Yugoslavian war picture in which Yugoslavian Partisans are sent to destroy a bridge that is vital to the occupying German forces. In this, they are assisted by the architect who designed the bridge; he must help the Partisans destroy this structure into which he invested his heart and soul.

Essentially a ‘man on a mission’ film in a similar vein to Robert Aldrich’s THE DIRTY DOZEN, released two years earlier, THE BRIDGE contains some incredibly well-staged action, photographed in a style that borrows from the visual paradigms of newsreels. Whilst the film seems to have one eye on the popularity of Spaghetti Westerns and Italian war movies of the era, there is nevertheless a gritty authenticity to the action that’s comparable to Sam Peckinpah’s approach in his 1977 war picture CROSS OF IRON, which was also shot in Yugoslavia. Perhaps it’s something to do with the locations…

At the end of the film, the bridge is detonated. Both the Partisans and the German opposition lament the fact that the ‘beautiful’ bridge had to be destroyed, a comment on the cost of war.